Leilani Munter is a professional race car driver in the ARCA Racing Series. She has also driven on the NASCAR and Indy car development circuits. Racing is not her only interest though, she regularly speaks at events to raise environmental awareness and publishes information on her Carbon-Free Girl website. (Her bachelor’s degree is in ecology and biology.) What follows is an interview with her.
How long have you been vegetarian?
I went vegetarian when I was six years old, when I found out what meat was. I made the next step and gave up dairy products in the last year.
Did you decide to be vegetarian for environmental reasons?
At age six I didn’t understand those types of issues; it was purely because of my love for animals. They were my friends and I wasn’t going to eat my friends. Obviously the environmental benefits of eating a plant based diet is huge. When people ask me what is the number one thing they can do for the planet, I tell them to cut back on their meat consumption.
What are some of your favorite vegetarian foods?
I have so many favorites, it’s tough to choose. I just got home from California where there are a lot of vegan and vegetarian places to eat out. I had my favorite potato burrito from Don Carlos Taco Shop in La Jolla. I ate some fantastic raw food at Planet Raw and Rawvolution in Santa Monica. At home we cook all the regular stuff that you find in regular non-vegan cookbooks, but we just use vegan meat and cheese substitutes when the recipe calls for dairy or meat. I make an amazing white wine and mushroom risotto. Eating a plant based diet is easy once you try it.
I just consume a variety of plant based foods and I get all the needed nutrients from the vegetables, nuts, black beans, hummus, lentils that I consume. Spinach is a great source of iron.
What would you tell someone who currently eats meat but wants to go vegetarian, in order to make a successful transition?
Start out with Meatless Mondays and soon it will spill over into the rest of your days. Don’t go for perfection. I think that asking for people to be perfect — whether it be their diet or anything else — is the quickest way to lose their interest altogether. Just work your way there slowly and I think you will find that it’s easy. Look around at the grocery store and explore cooking with the meat substitutes – you will find vegan versions of ground beef, chicken, cold cuts, sausages, etc. Try using these plant based meats instead of the flesh of dead animals. Try using almond, coconut, or soy milk instead of cow’s milk. If you need some inspiration, watch Forks Over Knives, Food Inc, or on YouTube look up Gary Yourofsky’s The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear.
When people ask you about eating vegetarian do you share information about how livestock agriculture generates about 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore not eating meat is better for the planet?
All the time. Everyone is focused on fossil fuels but more greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals for food than all of the planes, trains, cars, trucks, ships, and all forms of fossil fuel based transportation put together. We need to help people understand that the food on their dinner plates has a big effect on their carbon footprint.
Do you think there will someday be all-electric race cars charged by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind?
Absolutely, I have talked with several different groups that are working on electric race cars. There is already an electric drag racing series in California. Our NASCAR and ARCA race cars are already using a biofuel mix and I am certain we will be on 100 percent biofuels in the next few years.
How can the current racing industry reduce its environmental impact?
Besides the obvious move to 100 percent biofuels, Pocono is a great example of a racetrack taking the lead on renewable energy. They are now the largest solar powered sports facility in the world with a 3MW solar farm. Since the racetrack uses only 1MW of power, they are putting 2MW of energy back into the grid. As a driver, my goal is to use my voice to educate and engage the 75 million race fans in the USA to rethink their day to day habits for our planet. Two weeks ago at Daytona, I ran “The Cove” on my race car and my call to action was for people to watch the Oscar winning documentary The Cove Director Louie Psihoyos and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry were with me at the track and we gave away 1000 DVDs of the film to the race fans. My next race car we are raising funds for now is a Fueled by Veggies race car that will have fruits and vegetables all over it and will be calling to action race fans to try Meatless Mondays. We want to have a chef at the racetrack cooking vegan food for the race fans. Each time my race car hits the track (nine more times this year) it will address a different environmental issue and will have a specific call to action for the race fans to get involved. Some of my other themes are focused on clean energy, giving up single use plastic bags and bottles, and unplugging electronics when you are not using them. We currently waste $10 billion annually in vampire power. I want to use my race car to address all these issues and ask the fans to change their habits for our planet.
Is your own personal car a hybrid, or does it use ethanol, natural gas or biodiesel?
Actually, I currently don’t have a personal car! However, I am in the market for an electric car or a hybrid. There are a lot of good ones coming out right now, so I am shopping and reading all the reviews trying to make a decision.
Image Credit: Phil Cavali, with permission from Leilani Munter